Autistic Book Party, Episode 69: From a Shadow Grave

Today’s review is a guest post by Richard Ford Burley! Richard Ford Burley (he/they) is a queer neurodivergent writer and recovering academic. They’re the author of two novels and a handful of stories and poems, most of which incorporate queerness and/or neurodivergence in one way or another. They blog (infrequently) at richardfordburley.com and tweet (far too much) at @arreffbee.

Today’s Book: “From a Shadow Grave,” by Andi C. Buchanan

The Plot: A girl falls for the wrong man in 1932, dies, becomes a ghost, then doesn’t—and all of it has to do with a young woman named Aroha Brooke.

Autistic Character(s): The author, plus potentially the main character. Although it’s never explicitly stated, Phyllis is clearly neurodivergent, but living in a historical period (~1930s Wellington, New Zealand) that precludes diagnosis.

Back when I was a kid—let’s not talk about just how far back that is, exactly—there was a book series called “choose your own adventure.” Told in the second person, it guided you, the reader, through an adventure or a mystery, a plot that branched off in any number of ways. Usually, you kept a finger tucked in the last choice you doubted, so you could go back and try again if you met a bad end. Usually, you’d read it several ways, so that you could see all the endings. “From a Shadow Grave” saves you the trouble: it takes the reader through all of the endings without needing to choose, because all of the endings are true. And it starts with the bad end.

Set in the 1930s in Wellington, New Zealand, you are Phyllis Avis Symons, a girl with an unspecified learning disability whose parents never really thought would amount to much. You drop out of school, try to get work cleaning houses—which doesn’t work out too well since the Depression is in full swing—and you meet a nice man who takes you to the pictures. Things go well right up until you get pregnant, and after that, they go south in a hurry. And they do so in a way that leads to you haunting a freeway underpass for the next ninety years or so.

But also, that doesn’t happen.

And also it does happen, but it happens differently—and in all of the versions, the action comes back to a woman named Aroha Brooke, who’s variously the hero and sometime love interest of three of the four stories.

“From a Shadow Grave” tells its story (or stories) with multiple overlapping and interacting endings. In some versions it’s a ghost story, in others, it’s tale about trying to avoid becoming a ghost story. Coming in at just 98 pages, its form is experimental, almost poetic, and while that may pose a challenge for some readers, I found it drew me in. There were a couple of hiccups—moments where the dialogue felt a little more modern than I would have expected from a character from the 1930s, or where the flow of time caught me off guard, as though I hadn’t been able to keep up with the character development that had happened in the intervening years—but overall it was an enjoyable read, and a new experience for me.

Overall: I know that for some people, the form of the writing—the second-person, present-tense narrative, the deliberate fragmentation of the story—is going to be a dealbreaker. But if it isn’t a dealbreaker for you, I think you’ll enjoy it, and find yourself wanting more.

The Verdict: Recommended-2

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, click here.

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